Cambridge, Fitzwilliam Museum, Ms 180 Donato Acciaiuoli, Leven van Karel de Grote

On 2 January 1462 the Florentine ambassadors presented the recently crowned Louis XI of France (1461-1483) with this manuscript. The biography of Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor (800-814) and a revered model-ruler, was a fitting and flattering gift for the new king of France.


A superb example of Florentine scholarship and Renaissance book design, this volume was also a subtle tool of cultural diplomacy. It evoked the ideal of the Renaissance prince while demonstrating Florence’s intellectual and artistic superiority.

The author, Donato Acciaiuoli (1429-1478), was a distinguished scholar and diplomat. His friend, Vespasiano da Bisticci (c. 1422-1498), the most influential Tuscan book dealer of the day, oversaw the manuscript’s production.

He employed two masters of Renaissance book making, the Humanistic scribe Messer Piero di Benedetto Strozzi (1416-c. 1492), and one of the Medici’s favourite illuminators, Francesco di Antonio del Chierico (1433-1484).

The close relationship between author, scribe, artist and book agent demonstrate the importance of this manuscript to the Florentine ruling elite.

The volume was produced quickly – between Louis XI’s coronation on 15 August 1461 and 27 October 1461 when the Florentine ambassadors set off for France.


Two artists illuminated the manuscript: Francesco di Antonio del Chierico and one of his close associates.

Francesco di Antonio del Chierico

Francesco di Antonio del Chierico (1433-1484), who was to become one of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s favourite artists, illuminated the frontispiece with the dedication to Louis XI and the facing page with the beginning of the prologue (fols. 1v-2r).

His design of the dedication page draws on manuscripts made at the time of Charlemagne, while the white vine scrolls of the prologue’s page, populated with birds, deer, antique medallions and cherubs (putti), are the characteristic motifs of Humanistic manuscripts and Italian Renaissance aesthetics.

Both pages show the transition from the precise drawing technique and saturated pigments of del Chierico’s early works to the briskly sketched figures and delicate palette of his documented, post-1463 manuscripts.


The first page of the main text (fol. 6r) may have been designed by Francesco di Antonio del Chierico and he may have completed the cherubs’ faces and flesh. But the colours and finishing outlines were applied by a different hand.

The pigments are more saturated, the white vine scrolls more firmly delineated and the modelling of the cherubs’ drapery more schematic. All of these features emulate del Chierico’s early works faithfully enough to suggest the hand of a close associate.


The manuscript was made for Louis XI of France (1461-1483). By 1811, it belonged to Auguste Chardin (c. 1750-1823). Richard, VII Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion (1745-1816), acquired it in 1814 and bequeathed it to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1816.

Louis XI of France

Louis XI of France (1461-1483), who succeeded to the throne upon his father’s death in July 1461, was crowned on 15 August 1461.

He received this manuscript from the Florentine ambassadors on 2 January 1462. His name is inscribed within the dedication medallion (fol. 1v) and at the start of the author’s prologue addressed to the king (fol. 2r).

Texts and Images

The dedication page displays an elegant design modelled on Carolingian manuscripts, but updated with the royal arms of France. The author’s prologue and the main text open with gold initials and full borders of white vine scrolls. The rest of the text has no ornamentation.

The dedication to Louis XI of France is written in gold and azurite blue capitals within a blue, green and pink medallion (hotspot 1) supported and flanked by cherubs (putti). It is surmounted by the royal arms of France, also supported by putti, with two more kneeling above the shield. The putti’s flesh tones and hair were painted with a subtle but effective technique which exploits the creamy white colour and the texture of the parchment, which is left showing in most areas